Dr Liz Gordon: Doing it for ourselves


There are many lessons that we have learned so far from the global pandemic. An emerging lesson, one which Auntie Jacinda emphasises every day, is that our own actions, collectively, can make a difference. 

I have talked before about the neolib-killing aspects of COVID-19. The covid teaches us that, when the chips are down, only collective action will work.  This lesson has been slowly absorbed over past decades because of the environmental crisis of global warming, but also continues to be resisted strongly by some at the political level.

Neoliberalism requires individualism at all levels: psychologically, socially and economically. Although I am not a psychologist, I want to look a bit more closely at the psychological requirements – the mindset – of people in neoliberal society.

I also want to distinguish neoliberal thought from the kind of authoritarian populism that constitutes Trump, Bolsonara and the pre-covid Boris Johnson (I have great hopes for a changed Boris on his return).  Neoliberal leadership does not require populism, simply the unrelenting privileging of market forms over the collective, the state. Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson both always had this in their minds. Psychologically, they justified their actions on the basis that a period of pain would lead to gain for all. 

As it dragged on over the past thirty years, the psychological dissonance of knowing that neoliberal forms did not benefit all was resolved in a growing view that the losers, those below the poverty line, those of colour, those in prison and all the other disreputables deserved their fate.  If only they had been better, brighter, stronger, faster or more motivated, they too would have ridden the neolib wave.

TDB Recommends NewzEngine.com

In truth, psychologically, neoliberal psychology contained the seeds of its own demise.  As the wealth of nations was concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, and as the evident winners became a smaller and smaller pool, questions must arise in the human mind about the efficacy of the approach in rewarding individual toil.

It has always been puzzling in New Zealand how popular neoliberalism is.  Max Rashbrooke’s work has, for years, demonstrated overall and, through his online calculator, for individuals, that 90% of us are worse off under neoliberalism. Thus the project is supported by very large numbers of people who are poorer because of it. All I can say is that the human capacity for self-delusion is very deep, including our ability to believe we are better off as our resources drain away. And political hegemonies are, of course, built on that flaw of human psychology.

Neoliberalism feeds on the oxygen of stories of inequality- of how the rich get richer, and of the plight of the poor.  Beneficiaries are often pitted against workers in such accounts. The National Party has, in the past, gained a lot of political ground through contrasts of this kind, whether they be based on source of income or race (the iwi/kiwi billboards and the rise and fall of Don Brash).  

Labour has furthered the neoliberal project without such an overt discourse of denigration (mostly) and has shown itself capable of ‘doing’ neoliberalism while preaching social democracy.

Events such as the Christchurch earthquakes, the Mosque killings and, now, the pandemic, require the overt rejection of the neoliberal project. There is no saying “they deserve what they get – if only they had tried harder” when the ground is shaking, the guns are blazing or the virus invades.

There has, rightly, been a lot made of those who have flouted the lockdown rules. This is what you would expect of neoliberal man.  In flouting the rules you get ahead, become a Trump or other kind of mogul. Rule flouting, as long as one doesn’t get caught, is a desired psychological trait of neoliberalism. Rules, after all, derive from the ‘deep state’ of the corrupt socialist order. If you do get caught, the neoliberal society has been loath to punish the rich.

Indeed, it is likely the biggest flashpoint of the lockdown will come this weekend as people who have ‘worked hard and earned’ their holiday homes are prevented from populating them.  The most interesting aspect of that confrontation arises when local communities plead with holiday home owners not to come into their district and bring the coronavirus with them. Without that support, the government may have questioned the political cost of criminalising the wealthy middle classes in this way.

The success of the government’s strategy in squashing the covid curve here has depended upon competitive behaviour and the ability to act freely being subsumed to the greater good.  This is part of what people mean when they say everything has changed.

Looking forward, we are not looking for a return to the neoliberal norm.  We require a nation-building state as the basis of the rebuilding. For what needs to be rebuilt will not only be the unemployment and economic losses caused by the virus, but our very state itself. Cometh the hour, cometh Jacinda Ardern and a new social democratic state, 1935 over again but better, forged initially on borrowings but, over time, by a new and strong economy, higher taxes for the rich and a strong state. We have been psychologically prepared for this by the virus: the rest is up to us.


Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society.  She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.


  1. We DO NOT need to raise taxes to pay for any rebuild.
    Take away the right GIVEN to the uber wealthy to create currency (IT IS NOT money, by the true definition) out of thin air and charge US interest.
    Let the Government do that, as it historically has done, and so ALL the profits of such actions come back to the people NOT the uber rich. Consider the monies the Australian banks make from Kiwis and send back to Australia, about $4,000 per person per year ish.
    The Federal reserve and other countries reserve banks are PRIVATELY owned. This is why the poor have got poorer and the rich richer. Simple. But never any discussion about it. It is as if sucessive Governments don’t want to fix the problem.
    SIMPLE solution BUT who is brave enough in Govt to act. OR are they ALL puppets to their ‘control files’ (see Catherine Austin Fitts) held by the spooks. …..Let’s face it those spooks don’t seem to be doing much else with all that money and legal rights to break the law.

  2. NZ have incrementally not been “Doing it for ourselves” for the last decade, all started with Rogernomics.

    After the Global Financial Crisis the banks went on as usual throughout the world with even more money and power. No lessons learned.

    Sadly looking like the same might happen in NZ, aka the individuals and culture to create the crisis, eventually makes the most profit from a crisis, especially when China seems to be making a fortune and regulating the PPE’s.

    It’s also kinda sickening to see the overseas officials and media grovelling to get the PPE’s they shouldn’t even need if the virus can be contained by China in the first place.

    Few in power expects China to take personal responsibility for the diseases like Covid-19, SARS etc that seem to come from China on back of extreme animal cruelty, lack of hygiene and regulation and a culture of counterfeiting food. There similar massive numbers of people in India, but they don’t seem to have the diseases coming out of there, that China has.

    Food scandals are a constant issue in China.

    In spite of evidence of milk crisis in China that kill their own babies, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/apr/21/china.jonathanwatts Fonterra decided to do a partnership with Sanlu but of course then more babies died with yet another milk scandal a few years later https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2008_Chinese_milk_scandal in spite of Fonterra losing millions of NZ farmers money on the venture. Not to learn a valuable lesson, Fonterra then decide to invest in Beingmate but yet another failure at the expense of NZ Farmers! https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/business/348650/fonterra-extremely-disappointed-over-beingmate-losses

    Those sycophants in NZ just keep on making the same mistakes!

    Will our COL government?

    No 8 wire mentality, has morphed into neoliberal speak

    “Kiwi’s need to sacrifice for others, we can’t do it ourselves, we are reliant on other countries and nationals who have more power and money than us and therefore to be looked up to, and emulated. Keep going with neoliberalism, even if it is at the expense of our people, we are too weak and lazy and uncritical, to do anything else that requires the opposite approach”

  3. Yes great blog Liz we need to demand changes that benefit those at the bottom first because for those of us who know the Spirit Level then we know that it will then be good for all of us.

  4. Neo-liberalism is another version of capitalism which has been around for a long time. It was put so well as ‘the sovereign individuals of capitalism’. When so many are realising the collective is better than the individual, we must push for socialism.

  5. Doubts…..

    One can have strong doubts whether the Covid-19 saga alone has the dynamics to give birth to the new era sketched out by collective anticipation (which I would share to some degree), Dr Liz Gordon.


    Even if the capitalist charade called neo-liberalism would collapse from within, the organizational structures for successful transformation are not in place.

    Among others, it might be realistic to expect that Covid-19 is possibly used to further intensify monitoring, surveillance, suppression, exploitation of the commons under the cover of public concerns.

    One can hardly see that AO/NZ undertakes steps for an economic re-orientation toward sustainable production and consumption which is most essential for small- and medium sized businesses, farmers, workers.

    Day-to-day emergency management of Covid-19 is not sufficient, even if the public applauds to it. Time must be used for establishing alternative socio-economic settings and structures.


    The coming political backlash will be wide-ranging, especially if the national elections produce a result accommodating reactionary forces.


Comments are closed.